How Not to Honor Holocaust Remembrance Day

By Dora Illei

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is customary for the U.S. government to honor its victims, who were primarily Jewish. In last year’s statement, for example, the White House acknowledged the “six million Jews and the millions of others murdered by the Nazis” and said it is “our duty to counter the rising tide of anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred that threaten the values we hold dear—pluralism, diversity and the freedoms of religion and expression.”

However, the White House statement this year explicitly avoided any mention of antisemitism or Jews. Instead, the statement said, “We remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust.”

When pressed, White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks said the omission was intentional, because they “took into account all of those who suffered.” White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus also defended the statement, saying that he did not regret the omission. It later turned out that the White House rejected a State Department statement highlighting Jewish victims.

The Nazis persecuted and killed many groups because they viewed them as inferior—including Roma, sexual minorities, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and communists—and they should all be cited and honored. But the Holocaust was the Nazi’s effort to exterminate the Jews, which was at the core of their effort to create a “pure” race. The omission of the Nazi targeting of Jews has raised concerns of “soft Holocaust denial,” which seeks to minimize the facts of the Holocaust rather than deny it altogether. It’s a tactic used by white supremacists such as Richard Spencer, who applauded the “de-Judification” of the Holocaust by the White House. This minimization of the Holocaust is especially concerning given the alarming levels of antisemitism and hate crimes in the United States and Europe.

This is not to say that the suffering of Jews should be separated from the persecution of other minorities. On the contrary, it is crucial to recognize that hatred of one minority often leads to hatred of others. Today in many places, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia feed off each other.

Indeed, the White House statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day did not appear in a vacuum; it exists in both the context of history and the context of current global affairs. It was on Holocaust Remembrance Day that President Trump signed an executive order barring citizens from seven predominately-Muslim countries. The executive order also suspended the refugee resettlement program for four months and indefinitely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees.

The United States failed to be a place of safety and refuge for European Jews fleeing the terror of the Nazi regime. In fact, the Holocaust shaped the development of human rights law as the world vowed that a tragedy like this would never happen again. We now face the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The best way to honor victims of the Nazis, both Jewish and non-Jewish, is to remain steadfast in our commitment to protect the human rights of those desperately fleeing violence and persecution.


Published on February 13, 2017


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